Monday, April 28, 2008

Cooking Rice, Part II

you've got the rice, washed it, added salt, -soaked it and waited for a few hours. Perfect!

edibles needed (yields 3-6 servings,depending on the nationality of end-product consumers!):

1.5 cups basmati rice (you've already pre-soaked it)
4-5 tbsp of salt (you've already added to the rice)

2 litres (8 cups) of water
1-2 pinches cinnamon (if making bread tahdig)
3-4 tbsp vegetable oil (canola or sunflower)
1 knob of butter
1 pinch of saffron (if affordable!)
1 roll of lavash bread (or white tortilla) (if making bread tahdig)
hot water (some!)

non-edibles needed:

pot (a 3-4 litre one would do)
kitchen towel
colander (
the smaller the pores, the better)
wooden spoon
small plate
(nylon spoon could be used instead)

Next, get a colander, and place it in the sink. (wash up the dishes from last night, so your sink has got enough room!)

The next steps would be
somewhat similar to making pasta, so I'll make comparisons and mention the differences.

Pour the salty water covering the rice into a pot and add more cold water so the pot is half-way full: you would have around 2 litres of water
(~ 2 quarts, for non-SI readers!). Set the stove on medium high and wait until the water comes to a rolling boil. Add the rice to the boiling water.

Oil: to add or not to add? same as pasta, if you add oil, (and that would not be more than a few drops) its only to decrease the surface tension of the surface and prevent the water bubbles break the surface and make a mess. I dont.(I mean add oil, I do make mess!)

Wait for ~ 4 minutes, by now the water should have come back to boil. take a grain of rice and check for its firmness. It should be al dente, which for rice would be feeling some resistance under your teeth. If not
al dante yet, check every 2 minutes until it reaches the proper consistency. Pour the whole thing into the colander, and start pouring cold water on it. You would not do this with pasta, however with aab-kesh rice you want to remove the excessive starch and salt from the rice. In addition, you want to stop the process of cooking, otherwise the temperature is still high to allow rice continue cooking, leading to the grains sticking together, and as Alton Brown would say, this is not good eats.

Let the cold water pour over the rice for 30-40 seconds, during this time you would be tossing the rice around with your hand so that all the grains get washed and cooled.

Cooking Rice, Part II continues

If you were making pasta, you were done. However, we continue with steaming the rice (actually when we persians make macaroni we treat it as rice and add another step before eating the final product; the details of that would be for another post)

While the water in excess drains out, thanks to gravity, let me explain a few things.

First, let me tell you more about the colander. At home (i.e home home, in other words Tehran home, not Boston home) we have rice colanders. The pores are small enough to stop the rice getting out, but more importantly they are wide and shallow, which allows the rice not only to get washed and cooled faster, but also the bottom layers of rice are covered with less rice on top and thus turn out not too mushy. For the purpose of high-pass filtering, I use a mesh colander, but until my mom sends me a proper rice colander, I've got no other alternative.

And If you've kept wondering what the other stuff in the rice pictures is, that is called tahdig (literally meaning bottom of pan), the crispy crunchy golden-brownish crust. It can be made out of bread, potato slices or the rice itself.

I'll explain the bread and rice tahdigs here and leave other varieties for future posts.

Wash the pot with luke-warm water and quickly dry it so there is no starch left in the pot. For bread tahdig, (see picture of the previous post) put the stove on medium, add 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil (I use canola or sunflower oil), wait a minute, add a pinch or two of cinnamon (thats where the brownish colour comes from), swirl the pot so that the cinnamon gets around uniformly, and place a roundish piece of lavash bread.( If you cant find lavash at your supermarket, you can use white tortilla instead, however it gets a bit chewy). How to get the bread at the right size? Oops, I forgot to mention, when your pot is still empty and at room temperature, put a roll of bread, place your pot on it upside-down, and with a knife or pizza-cutter cut around the edges of the pot so that you can get the bread at the same size of your pot. Put rice in the pot so that it will soak in the oil and cinnamon. If you're making rice tahdig (this post's picture), skip the cinnamon stage, add 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil and let it heat up for 2-3 minutes. The rest is similar regardless of what resides at the bottom of your pot.

Give the colander a good shake so you can get rid of as much water sticking to the rice as possible and then add the rice gradually. I get away with the nylon spoon and use the gadget my mom used: a small plate. It will give you better control, and with a proper hand-shaking movement, you can swift the rice gradually inside the pot and not dump it. If you are making rice tahdig, the first layers of the rice (~ 1-1.5 cm) would be your tahdig. Proceed untill all the rice has been moved into the pot. With a spatula or wooden spoon bring the rice into the centre, forming a cone so that the rice is not in contact with the walls of the pot. With the end side of your wooden spoon, poke 8-10 holes inside the pile of rice all the way down. This will help the steam move up. Bring back the heat to medium low. Drizzle 1-2 tbsp of oil or melted butter over the rice heap* and
cover the pot's lid with a kitchen towel **

and the yellow grains, yes the colour comes from the drug spice, saffron. yes, it is expensive***, but a little goes a long long way. In addition, in my opinion the way Italians or Spaniards use it is not very cost-effective. Using the whole threads doesnt make sense to me. Saffron gives off a lot of colour and fragrance, but much more and at a faster rate if its ground. So instead of using tens of threads for each serving, use ground saffron. Add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to ~40-50 threads saffron and put in the grinder. The sugar granules will help grinding the saffron. Keep in a dark bottle (or closed cupboard) so that the light doesn't fade the colour, drop a lump of cube sugar (it is believed to preserve the fragrance, but its also a pain getting it out every time) and keep the lid tight.

The saffron I use, of course it traveled all the way with me in my 2*32 kg
allowed luggage (I don't know how many pounds that would be!) when I made the trans-Atlantic journey, and I do remember so vividly the day that the golden threads became part of my would-be kitchen paraphernalia: on a Saturday morning in August 2005 I went kitchen-shopping with my mom before coming to states, pondering whether to buy a rice-cooker, getting turmeric, persian spice mixture, a Teflon pot and frying pan, kebab skewers.....

To get the most of colour out of saffron, the best way is to brew it. (yes, coffee is not the only thing you brew!), For saffron that would be putting a pinch of the ground spice in sort of a bain marie (double boiler). To get it done quicker and faster (cooking is only one of things I do on a Saturday), I instead use a saucer and a cup of boiling water. I dissolve the saffron in 2 teaspoons of boiling water in the saucer, and put it on top of the cup of water. After ~ 10 minutes I get enough colour out of my saffron. Thinking its too much of a procedure? fine, just add a teaspoon of hot water to the saffron and stir while trying to crush the powder. Start this process at a time so that you get your saffron done when steaming the rice is finished.

After an hour of steaming, the rice would be ready. If you're making rice tahdig, you would need another half an hour to get it crispy enough. The rice will not get over-steamed, so no need to worry.
Get the rice out of the pan (with the same plate you used to transfer them at the first time), and spread it in a big dish, so that it cools just a bit, and the grains don't stick. Add 2-3 tbsp of rice to the dissolved saffron and mix so that most of the grains get soaked and pick up a yellowish stain. Add a knob of butter**** to the rice: the heat of rice will make the butter gradually ooze through and make it buttery. Top the yellow grains on the rest of the rice. (There are more details of what to add at the end, also depending on what the rice would be served with, so I'll skip that for now)

Until you figure out the precise time needed to get your tahdig at the right texture (varying with your pot, stove, rice...,) under-cook the tahdig rather than over-cook it (ie burning it). Take a look at your tahdig, if its not done, you can keep on heating it until you get the desired texture. Just keep your rice warm till the tahdig arrives.

Now, you've managed to cook the basic dish in persian cuisine, congratulations! Enjoy your meal!

Noosh e jaan!
(bon appetit)

* For the persian readers, a heat-and-flame diffuser (shole-paskh-kon) would not be necessary, since the flames in stoves I've seen in US kitchens are not strong enough, so you would not get a burnt tahdig. On the other hand if you do use one, you've got to wait way longer to get the crunchy layer formed.

* Just to make you realise how many special rice-making equipment I lack, I would add that the stoves we've got at home have a special cooktop (rice cooktop), which is larger than usual and the cooktop has got pores all over the surface (and not only at the circumference), thus
the flames and the heat would appear more uniformly to the pot. In that case, you should use a heat-and-flame diffuser (shole-paskh-kon). Otherwise, the bottom layer will be black instead of golden brownish!

* Again for the persian readers, if they are wondering, why there was no water-and-oil mixture (aab-roghan) added after the first 5 minutes of steaming, here comes the reason: my personal experience has yielded a not-so-perfect rice with adding the water component, as the water would make the rice at the bottom soggy instead of generating steam. Again, this has got to do sth with the stove, rice,...that I'm using in Boston.

** Put the lid in the middle of the towel, and bring the corners together at the exterior surface of the lid, and by the way, we do have another gadget in the kitchen, made up of cloth 4-6 cm thick just for htis purpose! (called dam-koni, literally meaning the steamer, one that helps steaming)

*** You can get a small container of Spanish saffron at Trader Joe's for around 5 bucks. If you're willing to pay more go for the French, Italian or Iranian version.

**** I
n the old days people used animal fat instead of butter or oil, which gives it an extraordinary fragrance, but health awareness and/or economic conditions, has made it a less common practice. However, if you want to have the experience, pay a visit to a Middle Eastern store. It would be in a can with a picture of a cow!!!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cooking Rice, Part I

Imagine you've enrolled in culinary school. You've done with the poultry module, the fish module..... You've learned how to bake bread, make cheese, do pastry.... You've mastered French, Italian and Chinese cuisine. Now you've got to fulfill the requirements for Middle Eastern & North African cooking. Among this group of cuisines (Moroccan, Turkish, Tunisian, Lebanese, Persian.. ) you choose Persian cuisine. *

What would be the first lesson you would learn? Got it! cooking rice.

A professor of psychology in one of US colleges (bringing up memories of the days he was dating a Persian girl) mentioned that:

"Persian rice is unique, the process takes a week, they pre-soak it, leave it for a day, then boil it, then steam it…It tastes awesome. It’s the best type of rice I’ve ever had in my life.

As I mentioned when I gave a lecture at Harvard** on How to Cook Persian-style Rice, just as Eskimos have around 50 words for snow, using different ones for "falling snow" and "fallen snow", Persians have different names for rice, depending on the way it is prepared.

Rice is the main staple in Persian dishes and its prepared in a rather different way compared to other cuisines.

Let me tell you a story: a Persian friend of mine goes to an East Asian country for a science conference. At lunch he sits next to a Japanese guy and both start complaining about the quality of the rice they were eating. "This is bad", says my friend, and "Yeah, its horrible" replies the Japanese guy. They keep on nagging until after a while my friend realises that while they are both unhappy with their rice dish, they would feel disgusted at what the other person thinks as the ideal rice! That is my friend considered its too sticky, while the Japanese guy thought its not sticky enough!

Yes, persian-style rice is not sticky, its not supposed to be sticky, and it should not be sticky (except for kate, a particular type that people living near the Caspian sea prepare). Since the rice is fluffy and the grains are well separated, its difficult to eat it with a fork, thus you need a spoon.

Yes, we eat rice with a spoon and I cant think of eating rice with a fork, except for risotto.

Rice being the main staple in persian cuisine, can be prepared in a variety of ways. It might be drained (aab-kesh, literally meaning water-drained) after being parboiled and then steamed. Alternatively, it might be steamed after the water has evaporated through boiling (dami). Among the terminology, there are two other ones: Polou and Chelou, the former being used for rice mixed with meat, vegetables, fruits, herbs, legumes and nuts, while the latter is applied to plain rice served with stews or kebabs: A useful (counter-intuitive) mnemonic is polou, starting with "p" is NOT plain!!

The scientist would say polou vs. chelou and dami vs. aabkesh are orthogonal axes regarding each other: that is your rice could be either polou or chelou and at the same time either aab-kesh or dami .


* This culinary school is definitely not CIA, as to my knowledge although having master chefs from 16 different countries, they don't teach Persian cuisine!

** Don't get me wrong! I don't teach at Harvard (at least Harvard does not offer any culinary degree!) Actually I had to take a course on Instructional Styles during my second year and give a 5-min mini-lecture on whatever topic I prefer, so I picked up one which would be fun and of most interest to a general audience.

Cooking Rice, Part I continues

I will give instructions on how to make aab-kesh. Although involving a few more steps, it gives way better results and there is less room for things going wrong. So why bother with learning dami? the fact is its believed draining the parboiled rice would remove some of the nutrients during the procedure. This is probably true, however, at least nowadays rice is not the sole source of nutrients, so don't worry about malnutrition if you aim at making the higher quality version.

To get started, you need rice. The type of rice which I find in US most similar to various persian rice is (long grain) basmati. Of course, this is not exactly the same as persian rices: the ones at home (the high-quality ones of course) give off a fragrance even when uncooked, and if not, you faire de "haah" ***, and then your olfactory apparatus would be pervaded with the aroma. Anyway, basmati is the best available choice, and the rey is pretty good (another persian rice terminology refering to the increase in length of a rice grain after cooking).

What I do is go to an Indian store and get my basmati rice over there. Recently I've been getting Zafarani, but you will be happy with any other basmati you find there.

Remember, if you want to to have rice for lunch, you've got to make the decision the night before! The reason is that you need to wash and pre-soak the rice for a few hours. My mom also inspected the rice in advance, making sure there were no pebbles, but that is not necessary with rice bought in US (at least till now people have not reported encounters with them, nor have the dentists!). Washing is done with cold or lukewarm water, covering the rice, emptying the water and repeating it 3-4 times. It removes both the excessive starch coating the rice and the smell of the burlap, from which most rice sacks are made of. Pre-soaking is just covering the washed rice with cold water, adding 2-3 tablespoons of salt for each cup of rice, and leaving it away for a couple of hours.

Are you saying I've got to decide on what to eat for lunch before I've had dinner the night before??? Well, the more you pre-soak the rice, the better the quality you get. However, if you do it for even half an hour or less, provided you don't skip any further step, the rice will still be delectable.

Wait till the next post to pursue your Persian culinary adventure!


*** As if warming up your hands with steam from an exhalation in a Boston-like winter weather! (isn't there any English verb for this action?!!)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My Blog

On Monday February 25th 2008 at 9:12 pm sipping a mango-flavoured tea at café gato rojo I decided to set up my food blog (this is NOT another Amelie Poulain!) and not to wait for anything in particular to happen: No adviser-settling, no new pilot data, nothing, zippo.

However, me being the obsessive person I am, had to figure out a good number of things in advance. So it took me a while...